The rescue of a young bald eagle on New Year's Day came full circle Wednesday when the rehabilitated bird was reintroduced to the wild near the Chickamauga Dam.
As the bird named Signal raised its wings to the wind, it seemed to hover several beats before heading out over the water. In a few moments, it reappeared and made a quick circle over the small crowd below.
"I believe it's saying 'thank you,'" someone said.
The female bird, thought to be 3 or 4 years old, was found injured near DuPont Parkway when Memorial Hospital EMTs Tony Peoples and Josh Day saw her standing in the middle of Amnicola Highway on Jan. 1.
"I said, 'This is not right. We're going back,'" Peoples said he told Day after they passed the statuesque bird.
They stopped their ambulance and turned on the lights to divert traffic around what they thought might be a golden eagle. Bald eagles don't get their full white head until they are about 5 years old.
In a bit, the bird sort of hop-glided to the median, and Peoples called Nancy Brice, a friend he knew had rehabilitated other big birds.
Brice knew immediately the massive bird was a young bald eagle. She said she tossed a blanket over it to distract it and knock it to the ground. She planned to put on her protective birder gloves and grab it, but Peoples' 911 instinct kicked in first.
"I dove at it and grabbed him by his talons and pinned it to the ground," he said.
He didn't know that each of the eagle's talons can snap human bones with a nearly effortless 400-pound squeeze.
"He's the first person I've seen to try and make a flying tackle on a bald eagle," said Day. "He was braver than I was."
Brice, who was there with the EMTs on Wednesday to watch Signal's release, shook her head.
"I had brought [birder] gloves, but he just went dove in with no protection," she said. "His partner screamed 'No' at him, but it was too late."
Rescuers believe the eagle was originally injured by a car clipping its wing.
After Brice had the bird safely in a cage that first day, she called another rehabilitator friend, Alix Parks on Signal Mountain.
Parks took the eagle in, carried it for a vet visit, X-ray and complete checkup. Then she enlisted the help of the American Eagle Foundation at Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.
The foundation's founder and president, Al Cecere, and its rehabber, Nancy Zagaya, have kept Signal healthy with meals of trout and a roomy cage as she healed and regained her strength.
Noting another adult bald eagle flying above the river and scouting for fish just before he released Signal on Wednesday, Cecere tagged the bird.
"It's not every day you get to do this," he said. "She may have a mate here, so we're glad to be releasing her here. Now there will be another adult bald eagle staying in this area."
Bald eagles were officially removed from the Endangered Species Act protection list in August 2007, but they remain protected under the Bald and Gold Eagle Protection Act of 1940.
They nearly became extinct in the 1960s when the pesticide DDT weakened their reproductive systems, causing eggshells to crack before chicks could hatch.
They've made a strong comeback since then, but they still are rare sights in Tennessee and much of the rest of the Southeast.
"There are still only about 12,000 nesting pairs in the lower 48 [states]," Cecere said.
On Wednesday at the dam, as Peoples retold the story of Signal's traffic-stopping rescue, couldn't contain his pleasure that the eagle survived -- something he just learned Tuesday.
"I hate it when I cry," he said, smiling as he walked from the tagging area to the hill where Cecere was about to toss Signal into flight.
Linda Peoples, who had introduced herself to everyone as "Mrs. Bird Wrangler," looked at her husband's dewy eyes.
"You're just a old softie," she said with a big smile.